Game review: You can tell your own story with XCOM 2

Could this be the best strategy game of all time?

XCOM 2 (Firaxis Games) PC, OS X, Linux ⋆⋆⋆⋆⋆

Hello, Commander. In 2012, XCOM: Enemy Unknown relaunched a moribund PC-only isometric tactical alien-killing game from the 1990s. The result was a blistering turn-based strategy game in which exquisite attention to tactics and planning were crucial to saving the Earth and preventing a small cadre of personalised soldiers from facing plasma rifle-induced ­oblivion.

In XCOM: EU, every turn was a tiny puzzle, a balance of tactics and strategy that could lead to euphoric victory or enervating defeat. Your soldiers move from cover to cover, find the best mix of tactics to take out a group of aliens, and hunt the next group. There is also a metagame: you build improvements to your base in order to improve your soldiers and offensive capabilities.

And boy, was it hard. The alien menace is framed as a technologically superior adversary, which happens to be numerically superior, too. You are given a small unit of human soldiers who must, mostly by dint of superior positioning and tactics, defeat an overwhelming foe. But failure is basically guaranteed. Small mistakes can rip your finely tuned formations apart. Inexperienced soldiers will be thrown into a world they are barely capable of surviving. Aliens shrugged off your puny human bullets – and an optional Ironman mode prevented saving, which increased the stakes while eroding the margin for ­error.

All of this basically applies to XCOM 2. But it adds depth, complexity and procedural maps to its core combat, significantly improves the metagame, and spends a bit more time developing the game's story and setting. Set 20 years after Enemy Unknown, the aliens have seized control of the world, installing a government known as the Advent Coalition. After the voiceless player-character referred to in sepulchral tones as Commander is rescued from an Advent medical centre, you must build a global resistance network to overthrow science-fiction totalitarianism – while working out what exactly the alien Avatar Project is all about.

XCOM 2 is a triumph of gameplay. The turn-based combat of Enemy Unknown has been made more complex. For seasoned players, the rewards are rich: you are forced to respond to a large variety of difficult tactical challenges – aliens disguised as humans, massive area-of-effect attacks, mind control, superior firepower, robots with more health than all of your squad put together – against tight time limits and while in command of soldiers whose fragility and customisation makes them seem very human indeed. This video gives you an idea of the complexity of the gameplay: you have to come up with dominant solutions for solving complex probabilistic problems on the fly, while balancing multiple objectives. Sounds fun, eh?

It is very difficult. It is also very satisfying. Every hard-won kill is a victory. It’s the kind of game that will make you cheer – out loud, in your living room – when your sniper accomplishes a difficult kill, hold your head when a mind-controlled allied soldier uses those weapon upgrades you so expensively accumulated to murder your squad before your eyes. Each of the new alien enemy types has tactical powers that force you to shake up your tactics: one of the game’s best moments is when a new enemy type reveals that it was not quite dead after all.

Firaxis Games, the developers of X-COM: EU and XCOM 2, know a thing or two about dopamine. They created the Civilization series, the turn-based world-­settling anthropology-strategy game that has a highly addictive reward cycle. Some of the logic of Civilization games is apparent in the metagame of XCOM 2. Upgrades are equally desirable but impossible to obtain all at once, because resources are scarce.

The Guardian asked if XCOM 2 might be the best strategy game of all time. I retain a childhood soft spot for Total Annihilation, while Starcraft II's complexity and intricate balancing led to a worldwide eSports league. But the refreshed gameplay of XCOM 2 is incredibly rewarding: combat is intricate, complex, intellectual and visceral. When you're winning, that is.

Many players have also had performance issues. Check your specs before buying – it has long load times, and will punish out-of-date graphics cards. A recent graphics hotfix might ease the burden on your hardware.

But, if this game clicks with you – and it may not – it might just be some of the most fun you've had in front of your computer. One of the joys of complex games where outcomes are not predetermined is that they allow you to tell your own stories within the game. XCOM 2 permits this in spades. It is also very easy to mod – this is quite a big deal, since even shortly after launch there are a host of tweaks, additions, and fixes that make significant contributions to the game. The best strategy game of all time? Maybe.

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